This is a fruit that many people have never heard of but in the 1920s, it was popular fruit. But, the reason that gooseberries are an unknown fruit is because of the white pine blister rust. This fungus attacks white pines, gooseberries and currants. To protect the white pines, the federal government made against the law to grow either gooseberries and/or currants. In 1966, the ban was lifted but some states still kept it on the books but in 2003, New York modified their law so that white pine blister rust resistant varieties of gooseberries and currants could be grown in the state.
Now that you know a little history, let’s learn how to grow gooseberries. This brambling fruit is hardy up to USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 3. When selecting gooseberries, you need to keep in mind that there are two different types. The American gooseberry (Ribes hirtellum) is one that typically more mildew resistant, smaller in stature, and more productive. The European gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa) produces larger fruit that is taster. In each one of these types of gooseberries, there are several different cultivators that have unique characteristics so finding one that will work for you is easy.
Unlike other brambles, gooseberries can grow in partial shade but there is a trade off. Growing this fruit in this type of environment increases the chance of your plant developing a mildew problem. Also, gooseberries grown in partial shade tend to produce fewer and smaller fruit. In doing so, the best light to plant your gooseberry in is direct sunlight.
When it comes to soil, it needs to be well draining but have the ability to retain water without it becoming soggy. To add nutrients to the soil, mix in a good amount of well seasoned compost and/or manure in the fall prior to planting.
After you have selected the variety you want to grow, the next question is pollination. Gooseberries will fruit with just one plant. So if you are simply starting out with gooseberries, one plant will do but if you want to grow more than one, keep in mind that you will need 3 to 5 feet between plants and 8 to 10 feet between rows.
While gooseberries can be sold as bare rooted or potted plants but regardless of which type you purchase you need to make sure that there are three to five healthy main branches. If you have bought a bare rooted specimen, you can keep it for a while in a cool, moist environment. To increase your success rate when it comes to bare rooted plants make sure to get them in the ground as soon as possible.
But before you plant your bare rooted gooseberry in the early spring, soak the roots in a bucket of water or wheelbarrow for three to four hours. After they have soaked, the bare rooted plants will be ready to plant. If planting more than one plant, measure and mark the spacing. Once that is done remove any dead roots. Next, dig a hole that is slightly deeper than the roots and twice the width. Unlike other plants, gooseberries should be planted slightly deeper than the depth they were started in. This will encourage more root growth. The same process holds true for container grown specimens.
Once planted, cut all the canes back to the point that there are only four to six above ground buds or cut all the canes so that they are only 6 to 10 inches long. Either one of these techniques will promote new cane growth. To control weeds and provide a source of organic fertilizer, add two to four inches of grass clippings, well seasoned compost or wood chips. If you use the latter, you may need to apply additional nitrogen fertilizer.
While you can allow gooseberries to simply grow wild, it is better to trellis them up. Yes, you can wait to set up your trellis but it is easier to just go ahead and set it up at the time of planting.
After the initial pruning, you can prune your gooseberry in two different ways. One is referred to the leg while the other is referred to as a stool. The leg pruning method starts off with pruning in the winter. Remove all the canes except three to four canes that are growing upward and/or outward. Cut these remaining canes back to the point that they are only six inches in height. During the following winter cut the branches produced on these canes back to six inches. This continuous cutting will eventually cause the original canes to become the “legs” by which branches are produced.
The stool pruning method is one I find the easiest for a beginning gardener but this technique produces fewer fruits and increases the chance of developing a powdery mildew problem. This process begins in the winter. You will need to cut all the canes down to the ground except four canes. The next winter, the process is the same but you leave the original four canes while you prune back all of the new canes excluding four. Now you have four 2-year old canes and four 1-year old canes. The third winter you do the same with the new growth. At this point, you will have four canes in each age group (1-,2-, 3-year old). In the fourth winter, you remove all the four year old canes and repeat the process.
While breeding has created white pine blister rust resistant varieties, there are some diseases and pests that breeding has not addressed. One is gooseberry mildew, which will appear as a grey and/or white fungus that can cover leaves, stems, and even the fruit. The best approach is to prevent this problem by planting the gooseberry the prescribed spacing. This will encourage air circulation and dry out the environment. But, if you see a grey and/or white fungus growing on your gooseberry, remove the effect areas and destroy.
Another problem comes from the gooseberry sawfly. The larvae of this insect can quickly eat up all the leaves on a gooseberry and this is not limited to once a year. You can have three flushes of this pest per growing season. Begin to examine your gooseberry in mid spring and continue through the growing season. What you are looking for are green larvae on the underside of the leaves. If you find these, pick them off by hand and throw in a bucket of water with a little bit of dish soap.
The last issue is birds. Birds will eat the fruit. To prevent this, cover the plant with netting or fleece. Another approach is to place a predator out in the environment. An example of this would be an owl or a scarecrow. But, to keep this effective, the prop will need to be moved often.